So, seen any good ones today?
How to enjoy - and survive - Toronto's Festival of Festivals
by Geraldine Sherman

(The Globe & Mail September 4, 1992)

Toronto film nuts are already half crazy preparing for the cultural decathlon known as the Festival of Festivals, the annual movie orgy that begins Sept. 10. Official programmers have screened a mountain of movies and whittled their selections to a mere 335 films from 42 countries, leaving thousands of eager consumers with both a marvellous prospect and an excruciating dilemma: How many films can we see in a day? What mustn't be missed? How will we ever know? Can we cope?

As a veteran of film festivals past, I offer to those new to the game some advice born of tough experience - my own and that of several other fanatics:

Calling Time Out

Steps should be taken immediately to ensure maximum festival participation. Scratch Sept. 10-19 off your calendar. Arrange days off work, or, at the very least, drop hints to colleagues that you seem to be coming down with a seasonal affliction. Warn everyone that, except for emergencies, you are unavailable. Those whose birthdays or anniversaries fall within this hallowed time must settle for abject apologies. There can be no off-screen sentiment.

A Thousand Different Festivals

There are as many festivals as there are festival-goers, each of us drafting our own schedules, mixing content, matching times, picking from various series - Contemporary World Cinema, Asian Horizons, Latin American Panorama, Perspective Canada, The Edge, Midnight Madness.

Remain calm. Help lies in the official handbook. Study it carefully. Pore over descriptions of each movie provided by programmers such as Helga Stephenson, Piers Handling, Kay Armatage, David Overbey. In time you will learn to rely on the opinions of some and reject others. Watch for certain key words - "restrained," for instance, could mean dull; "surreal," incomprehensible.

Various pundits publish lists of What's Hot and What's Not. Sift through everything. Make your dream list before you confront reality, the overall listings - titles, dates and times - that appear in several Toronto newspapers before the festival begins. Decide which "must sees" you can fit in. Don't despair. We all compromise.

You Are What You See

There are those who must see this season's U.S. blockbusters, or sit in the audience with visiting superstars. The galas exist for this sort of schmoozing. For most of us, however, a reverse snobbism takes hold. We avoid the dressed-up throng at the Elgin theatre, craving instead the latest by a little-known director or actor we treasure. Perhaps it's a subject that fascinates us - the world of women, Hong Kong gangsters, aging freedom-fighters, the demi-monde. Not for us the froth of Hollywood. We await the homegrown Canadian films, or the national cinemas of distant places like Turkey, Finland, or Burkina Faso. My personal favourite last year was Tinpis Run, the first feature ever made in Papua New Guinea. True festival patrons set out on a 10-day journey to strange and thrilling places, real and imagined.

The Right Ticket

The festival box office at the Colonnade on Bloor Street offers a smorgasbord of passes and coupons - unlimited daytime screenings ($60); evening galas ($45); coupons (10 for $60); and the enthusiast's best friends, the Festival Pass ($125), good for everything except galas. If time is a problem, coupons might be your best bet, but bear in mind they must be rationed like life-jackets on the Titanic. During the last days of the festival, victims of poor planning stalk line-ups, hunting for leftover coupons.

Quality Versus Quantity

Festival passholders delight in amortizing their costs, working frantically to beat the system. The first movie, they moan, cost them $125. The one after that, $62.50, then only $41.67, and so on. Bargain-hunters shoehorn five or six films into each day for a total of 50 or so, bringing each down to $2.50 a pop. A Pyrrhic victory, I say. Three-a-day is my limit, although there are those who swear they can recall every precious moment in the hundreds of hours they've seen. I remain skeptical. See fewer and enjoy them more.

Birds of A Feather . . . But Not Always

Going with a friend can be fun, but not if it results in too many compromises. This is a time for unabashed selfishness. Surrender only to the movies. Indulge in the company of strangers. Lineups are the marketplace for opinions. Most films are screened twice, so everywhere, everyone asks, "What have you seen that's good?"

Dressing Down For Success

Casual, comfortable, adaptable is the fashion for the diehard. Let Bloor Street shop owners sneer. Prepare for a various climate, outdoors and inside theatres. Layers are good. So are knapsacks, foldable raingear, sensible shoes, and a crummy sweater you can use to hold your seat.

A Well-Stocked Mess Kit

There is only so much popcorn you can eat, so many hotdogs you can snarf, before intestinal fortitude disappears. It's unreasonable to expect us to bring homemade sandwiches when we stumble into bed each night too tired to undress, but picking up fresh fruit and bottled water is possible. You'll discover places to buy salads or sushi as you run between theatres.

Just Say No

You're 30 minutes into the movie. You sense your boredom. Revulsion or snickering will not let up. If you're a passholder, leave. There's no reward for masochism or indecision. Carry your schedule and festival handbook at all times. Remember, there are plenty of other movies.

Festival Etiquette

Toronto festival audiences are different; they talk before the movie starts. They look after one another's belongings. They often applaud when the movie ends, even if the director isn't there. They don't mind lineups but they hate queue-jumpers. They carry books so they won't waste time, a Walkman to defend against anyone beside them who loudly summarizes the last six movies he's seen, a tiny flashlight to read programs inoffensively in theatres, a watch that glows in the dark, and nothing that beeps when it shouldn't.

Living With Failure

Face it now. Three hundred and thirty-five movies can't be great. Most, alas, won't even be good, so that even after scrupulous planning and following up on hot tips, it's possible to come up empty. There have been years, I confess, when I've managed to wade through an entire festival without seeing one movie I adored, somehow missing those my friends swear were pure magic.

But that's history. This year's festival is sure to be sensational. Or parts of it will be, and even the bad moments will have their own tribal charm.

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1992

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